BEAR AT SEA
It’s quiet now. Eunice and I are both in our beds, needing sleep but it won’t happen. Sorrow steals your ability to turn off your brain. I keep playing the whole thing over and over in my head. I cannot conceive of the how and the why. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I need to start before the day went so wrong.
– Lily Gilbert, Assistant to PI Bear Jacobs
The Japanese feather industry damn near plucked the short-tailed albatross population to death. Volcanic eruption at the bird’s breeding ground took its toll as well. But WWII really did the trick. Somewhat understandably, the welfare of the albatross was not a top concern at the time. After the war, an American researcher visited Japan’s Torishima Island and declared it to be barren of the birds.
But he was wrong.
Juveniles had been growing up while soaring over the Bering Sea during the war years. They flew for months on end, producing a stomach oil that made an energy rich food. Along the way they desalinated their own bodies. When they matured enough to require mates, they returned to the island to breed. Japan and the United States took measures to save them. Today, a fragile population still flies the North Pacific skies.
They were called fool birds by Japanese and boobies by Americans because the albatross is awkward on the ground. They also allow humans to get close enough to kill them. This name-calling might better have been aimed at the people who labeled them. The tail of the short-tailed albatross is no shorter than its relatives, even longer than some. But if they were called long-tailed, then the entity formed to save them would have been called the Protective Association of the Long-Tailed Albatross or PALTA.
And everyone can agree that PASTA is a much catchier acronym.
May 3, 11 a.m.
Eunice Taylor has always been fond of pasta. But it’s not the kind served here at Latin’s Ranch Adult Family Care on Sicilian Night that I’m talking about. It’s PASTA as in the Protective Association of the Short-Tailed Albatross. Turns out she’s a sitting duck for an albatross, so she – and her money – have taken on the PASTA cause big time. Donations, sure. Plus a whopping big endowment for the future.
She surprised everyone but me with an announcement at breakfast one morning not long ago. She held up a photo of a white bird with a blue-tipped pink beak. “This is a short-tailed albatross. These beautiful birds are drowning, caught on hooks or tangled in long-lines dragged by fishing boats.” Her false eye lashes fluttered and she patted her silk kaftan in the general area of her heart.
“I’ll be damned,” muttered Bear Jacobs as he buttered a warm corn muffin. “Could you pass the honey, Lily?”
He could have at least acted like he was interested.
Eunice would not be sidetracked. “It happens to a hundred thousand boobies a year all around the globe.” Her orange spiked hair trembled in sympathy with her lower lip.
“Imagine that. A hundred thousand boobies,” said Charlie Barker, plopping a dollop of guacamole on his huevos rancheros. “I’d give my eye teeth to see just one nice set again before I die.”
“That’s not funny, Charlie Barker,” Eunice snapped.
“It is not wise for you, this interruption of my little dove,” Frankie Sapienza said, staring icicles at Charlie. If the two hadn’t been friends, the old capo would have stared something scarier. Like daggers.
“All right, no harm meant,” Charlie replied, holding up both hands. “No need to mobilize the mob.”
Eunice patted Frankie’s hand then resumed. “Through PASTA, I have supported the introduction of by-catch mitigation devices in the North Pacific.”
“A by-catch mitigation device. Is that a marital aid?”
“Charlie,” growled Bear. “I suggest you let Eunice say her piece and get it over with.”
“Thank you, Bear. By-catch mitigation devices are specialized hooks and lines that can save birds or fish that were never meant to be targets. The poor things can disentangle themselves and go free. It’s for my efforts on the birds’ behalf that I have been awarded PASTA’s Arctic Angel Award. I pick it up in a ceremony in Juneau, Alaska on May 18.”
Eunice paused for effect. She straightened her back and may have puffed out her chest although the kaftan hid that particular bit of body English. She spread her arms in a graceful movement as though trying to encircle us. “And you’re all coming with me!”
Silence while we all looked at Eunice then at each other. Not one of us is on the south side of seventy-five. And not one of us gets around without some help from a fall-on-your-ass mitigation device. Well, except Eunice. Maybe she’s forgotten that even though she’s an octogenarian, she’s spryer than the rest of us.
“Just how do you think we’re gonna do that?” asked Bear, who was the only trained investigator in the breakfast room. As his assistant, I keep these case notes. Not that they’re real case notes. There isn’t a real case, at least not yet. But leave it to a retired private investigator to probe for answers.
“By cruise ship, of course!” Eunice said in the same bright tone she would use to yell ‘surprise’ at a party. “And I’m paying for the whole thing.”
“Juneau?” asked Frankie. He stared at ‘his little dove’ as though she’d just become his little dingbat.
“Cruise?” asked Bear. His frown deepened the plenty-deep lines in his frowny face.
“Free?” asked Charlie in delight.
“Yes. A cruise … to Alaska … and it’s free,” answered Eunice, nodding from one to the next.”We leave week after next.”
“Did you know about this?” Bear swung toward me, his lower jaw jutted out.
“Me? Why would you think I wouldn’t tell you about a thing like this?”
Of course, I’d been carrying Eunice’s secret while she planned it all out and prepared to deal with the million objections that would follow. I must say I consider Eunice, like the short-tailed albatross, a pretty rare bird. It’s hardly her fault that her long association with the bird was soon to lead to ‘murder most fowl’ for the Latin’s Ranch gang.
– Lily Gilbert, Seafaring Assistant to PI Bear Jacobs
Retired PI Bear Jacobs sat at the game table waiting for the others to assemble in the living room for their trip to the senior center. The Latin’s Ranch regulars went twice a week to socialize and to give Jessica Winslow, the owner of the adult care home, a little time off from senior sitting. While he waited, Bear was feeding Baby Benny. Baby Benny was seeing just how far he could spit his oatmeal.
“I knew people at the nursing home who acted just like you, champ,” Bear muttered. “We’re not done ’til you get more of this goop inside than out.”
Benny made a facial gesture that Bear chose to interpret as a smile. Jessica had said the baby was sleeping better now and seemed happier more of the time. Bear could feel his iceberg of a heart melt just a bit at the baby’s drooly smirk.
“Stay out of the casinos, kid,” Bear said. “You got no poker face at all.”
Bear was one of Benny’s favorites. The old man could have been mistaken for a stuffed version of his namesake. His head was round, his eyes dark as black beads, his brown beard and hair shot through with gray. His arms were a genuine bear hug that held the baby safe from a dangerous world. They often sat together when Jessica needed a helping hand.
Nobody spoke of it, as though talk could make it real. No need to court disaster. But Bear knew all the residents hoped for the same thing: that this baby would rise above the crack and booze that may have poisoned his system in the womb. Their caregiver Jessica was Benny’s mother now. She and Ben Stassen had adopted him after Ben’s daughter disappeared back onto the Seattle streets, leaving her baby behind.
Bear was making yummy noises that Baby Benny was ignoring when the big man heard the sound of Lily’s cane tapping the floor. “Just look at these beauties,” she said as she walked into the room holding a vase bursting with reds, yellows and whites. The strong aroma of species roses wafted into the living room with her. Bear knew she loved to be out on the patio, working with their container garden. He figured a fresh breeze was responsible for the pink in her cheeks and her disorganized cloud of white hair.
Charlie looked up from the sports page and smiled. “Still a pleasure to see you walk into a room, Lily. It’s a sight to behold.”
“One of these days, Charlie, I may even skip like a little girl.” Lily had received her new prosthetic leg at the start of the year. She’d pushed through pain and fear of falling and threats of deadly infection that could manifest where the artificial and the real leg joined. At facing down problems with dogged determination, Lily was a rock star. Her wheelchair was a thing of the past, and she only used her rolling walker at times when she removed the prosthesis. Otherwise, she employed a cane to help her with balance. Her physical therapist said she’d always feel more secure with one. Then he’d shrugged and added, “Of course, I’m thinking of normal people.”
Eunice came into the room just after Lily, a sprig of clematis tucked over an ear. Rhinestones in her sunglass frames twinkled and little bells in her earrings tinkled. “It’s gorgeous outside. And so warm I only need a shawl.” She was wrapped in an eye-popping red and black scarf with the Salish tribal art pattern of hummingbirds. “Every blooming thing is having a field day. Even the horses are racing around the pasture feeling their oats.”
“Eunice,” Bear said, interrupting her song of spring in a far less lyrical voice.
She stopped. In fact, his tone was serious enough that they all looked up. “Yes, Bear?”
“About this cruise.”
She bloomed again. “Doesn’t it sound fun? I have brochures we can share at the senior center today.” She patted the tote bag she carried, the one she’d Bedazzled with GOOD VIBES.
“Guess I don’t need to wait ’til then to tell you.” He wanted to get this over with.
“Tell me what, Bear?” Eunice took a seat next to him at the game table, looking like a worried ginger poodle. Baby Benny made a grab for her tote, a fat little fist wrapping around the blingy strap.
“I’m not going.”
“What?” said Charlie, Lily and Eunice, pretty much in unison.
“It’s very generous of you, Eunice, but it’s not for me. Cruising.”
“Spent time in troop carriers in Nam, you know. Never much liked boats ever since.”
“Oh! But this isn’t a boat ride, Bear. This is a luxury ship. Taking people to beautiful places.”
“Never much liked people, either, come to think of it.”
“All your friends will be there,” Eunice said, once again holding her arms wide to include everyone in the room. “You won’t have to talk to strangers if you don’t want to.”
“Well, I don’t want to, and there’s almost no chance of it if I stay here.”
“Some of them strangers might be real lookers,” Charlie cut in. “I know you got an eye for a redhead when you see one.”
Bear began to feel cornered. And that meant he could get dangerous. “Not that it’s any of your business, people, but I get seasick. There. That’s the end of it.” He shut his mouth tight, not unlike Baby Benny when faced with a spoonful of medicine.
At that moment, Jessica breezed in and picked up the baby. “Thanks for watching him, Bear.” She wrinkled her nose. “Hmmm. Smells like he needs a change.”
“Yep. Goop to poop in next to no time.”
“I’ll see to it. Vinny’s out front waiting for you all.” The Cadillac could handle all five residents. “Frankie’s already in the car.”
“We’ll talk more about it at the senior center,” said Lily.
“Nothin’ more to talk about. I’m not going.” Bear stood, waited a couple seconds for his hips to stop barking, and kachunked on his quad cane out of the room. But he wasn’t so far ahead that he didn’t overhear the rest of them as he went out the door.
A crestfallen Eunice said, “He must know he can wear a patch for seasickness. Just behind his ear.”
“It must be serious,” said Charlie, unlocking the wheels of his chair and following the rest of the pack. “Redheads can usually bring him around.”
After a few hours of entertainment at the senior center, Vinny Tononi drove the group back home to Latin’s Ranch. The Cadillac was approximately the same size as a cruise ship. Frankie, Eunice and Charlie sat in the back. Lily was sandwiched up front between Bear and Vinny.
Vinny was Frankie’s bodyguard, chauffer and all around goomba. He was big, stern and often clanked with concealed weaponry. There was a time when he made Lily nervous. Now that he was her daughter’s amore, Lily was edgier than ever. The high probability that one of them would end up broken hearted – or cuore spezzato depending – made her as jumpy as a jackrabbit.
Vinny took his eyes from the road long enough to look down at Lily. “You are well, Miss Lily? You are so quiet.”
“Oh fine, fine. Just enjoying the spring color.” Rhodies flashed by pink white pink white pink white as the vehicle zoomed toward home.
In fact, she wasn’t fine. Their visit to the senior center had been unsatisfactory. First, she’d lost to a newcomer at Scrabble. That simply wouldn’t do, and she needed a rematch soon. Then she’d made an effort to talk with Bear while he and Frankie checked and checkmated each other. But the big man wasn’t talking about the cruise. She’d have to wait for a moment alone with him to find out the skinny.
That was bullshit and she just knew it.
They were approaching the Latin’s Ranch driveway when Bear’s phone rang. He frisked himself before locating the little device in a shirt pocket.
“What?” he asked into it when he found it. “No, we’re gone … no, I didn’t … no … yeah. I think you maybe should stop by.”
Bear clicked off. Lily watched him cloud over like a front moving in. She waited. Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore. “Who was that? What’s happened?”
“Someone was shot at the senior center right after we left. Cupcake’s coming to talk about it.” He turned his great head toward the back seat. “Eunice?”
“Think I might go to Alaska with you after all.”
END OF EXCERPT